The Dead Man’s Coat

Zeynep’s arm strained against the wind as he pulled the collar of his coat tighter to shut out the rain. His coal-black skin glistened in the glare of headlights, and his knuckles gripped the handle of his suitcase, tattered with age, on the lonely and frenzied overpass. The contents therein clunked and clattered with each determined step, his thumb outstretched in the hope of receiving a ride from some altruistic or naive motorist.

****

In the rage of the storm, no naive motorist appeared, and Colton Jones was no altruist. He was an underemployed customer service rep for an uncaring and giant communications company. Faceless, only a number, and his knuckles gripped the steering wheel, his lit cigarette bounced against his bottom lip and a growing sense of ennui gnawed at him. Existential dread had already set in at his tender age of twenty-seven. Crow’s feet formed at the corners of his mud-colored eyes, and it wasn’t from smiling. He smoked, not because he belonged to the bottomless pit of the working class, but because he wanted to be a little closer to death.

He took the next exit onto the freeway. Towards the end of the ramp, in the faint glow of the headlights of his battered sedan was a hitchhiker. He wore a chocolate brown overcoat and carried a suitcase. He was thin, his hair gray, his eyes almond shaped and deep-set, their color indeterminable in the gray light. His thumb was outstretched. Colton, in the throes of a deep depression, did not hesitate to stop for the stranger. He glanced in the rearview mirror, saw it was empty and stopped in front of the man and rolled down the passenger side window.

“Evening,” the man said. His eyes were red, and latched onto Colton’s. If Colton had not been in the grip of ennui, he may have been unnerved, but his survival instincts were dampened by the lack of serotonin in his skull meat. He looked at the empty passenger seat and back up at the stranger.

“Get in.”

The heavy door creaked as he did so, and slammed shut against the rain. Colton rolled up the window.

“Where to?” Colton asked as he spit his cigarette out onto the freeway, his head swiveling for oncoming traffic as he merged.

“Station Square.” The stranger had an accent, and an unusual timbre to his voice, like the beat of a timpani.

“You’re not from around here.” Colton liked to think aloud. Some would find this rude, but he did not like to ask questions. He hated to be asked questions, and would therefore extend the same courtesy to others. Our Colton, though no altruist, was empathetic, as is the usual domain of the monopolar.

“I live in Mt. Washington with my wife, but I am from Senegal. I am meeting her for dinner at Houlihan’s.”

“I hear it’s good.”

“I hope so. She does not like disappointments.”

“Huh.” Colton took another cigarette from the pack with his teeth. The clink of a zippo and sizzle of tobacco were the only sounds to pass between the two men. Colton began to feel claustrophobic. The silence hung in the air like the smoke. The wipers made their steady pass over the windshield as driver and passenger stared ahead.

Colton finished his cigarette, spit it out the window again. There was a momentary break in the rain and the gray sky hung low over the highway. Colton noticed the gas tank was near empty, and he cursed to himself. That orange light on the dash was a constant companion, a reminder of his post-graduate penury.

“I need to get gas.” Colton’s reticent passenger nodded. The station was visible from the highway, high on a hill. They took the next exit, wound down the hill, hit the green light in the valley beneath the overpass, and zoomed back up the other side, Colton’s bucket of bolts jostling all the way.

He eyed the man’s suitcase on the passenger side floor. The handle was frayed cloth, the corners scuffed, and the buckles held together with tape that curled up at the edges from the rain. Colton hoped it would hold as they reached the top of the hill and turned right.

The station was small, only four pumps, all empty and nondescript with a small convenience store inside. Colton pulled into the first pump, switched gears, turned off the engine and opened the door. He unbuckled his belt and the stranger did the same. He extended a hand, and his reddish-brown eyes bore into Colton’s.

“My name is Zeynep. Please allow me to pay.” Colton shook his hand. It was dry, heavily calloused. He was grateful for the generosity, but Zeynep had the air and look of a man not to be denied.

“Thank you, sir.”

“I will put 20 dollars in.” Zeynep called over his shoulder and entered the convenience store. Colton unscrewed the gas cap to his sedan and turned to watch Zeynep through the well-lit windows.

The clerk was a middle-aged fat man, sallow skinned, his shirt stained and the middle bulged so much only the top and bottom buttons were fastened. Zeynep’s face was expressionless as he handed him the money. Colton turned, pressed the button of 87 unleaded and put the nozzle into the tank. The wind from the highway whipped at his face, and when he looked back at the store, there was no sign of Zeynep. Must be washing up before dinner, Colton thought. The click of the pump signaled it was finished, always too soon-it was less than half a tank. Colton returned the nozzle and slid into the car. He turned the key and shut the door.

Colton heard the suitcase fall open and an ungodly smell filled the sedan. It reminded him of the smell of the deer he used to field dress with his father when he was in high school. It was the smell of blood, the smell of death and rot. His eyes widened and there was a panicked whining in his ears when he looked at the passenger side floor. A severed left hand, delicate, the nails manicured, with a singular gold band around the fourth finger was nestled in the bottom joint of the suitcase. His chest hurt as he put the car into gear and without checking the rearview mirror, floored the accelerator. He felt an impact and heard the crunch of metal, glass and bone and saw the limp body of Zeynep fly over the hill, his coat and shoes landed on the hood of Colton’s car and with the swish of a cavalier whipper, they fell onto the pavement.

****

Hours later, the rain still hadn’t stopped. The cold and damp this time of year was relentless and seeped into the bone. George and Carol had enough of the dreariness and decided to take a short vacation to a few states south where the sun still made an appearance.

“George, you need to stop for gas. I don’t want to get stuck in the rush hour traffic on E. Remember that time you didn’t stop and — ’’

“For the love of God, woman I know.” Carol’s nagging was a pile of bricks on George’s back. His shoulders were stooped by their 10th anniversary. Forty-five years and 2 kids later, George had a permanent kyphosis.

“Well I was just sayin’.”

“Oh, what are you just sayin’?” They bickered like old pea hens as they exited the highway.

“It’s right up that hill, George.”

“I can see that, Carol. I am not blind.” George heard her eyes roll. He took the next exit where a nondescript gas station and convenience store sat high on a hill and overlooked the highway. George pulled into the first pump.

“I need a coffee,” Carol said as she buttoned her coat. George grit his teeth. He wanted one, too, but never knew what kind of answer he would get from his wife when he made requests. He opened his door, stuck one foot out and said over his shoulder, “Large, one cream,” before shutting it. He entered his card, hit the button for 87 unleaded, withdrew the nozzle and put it into the tank.

He could see Carol inside. She had two coffee cups on the counter. George’s shoulders relaxed for the first time since they left the house. Carol was talking to the cashier, a middle-aged man in a greasy, unbuttoned shirt. George’s shoulders tensed again. Carol could talk to strangers for hours.

George returned the nozzle in its port and sat in the car. He reached for the newspaper he left on the floor of the back seat. His coffee would be cold when she finished, but at least he could read in silence.

George was soon lost in the ink, which smudged beneath his damp fingers — tornadoes in Kansas, the rings of Saturn in Mercury retrograde for Capricorn’s horoscope, rain all weekend. George was happy to be heading south, even if Carol was his only company. He sighed and licked his thumb and forefinger to turn the page when Carol opened the door, coffee’s in hand. George set the paper down and took the Styrofoam cup from her.

“What in the hell are you carrying?” he asked, eyebrow raised. She had a dark brown piece of fabric draped over her arm.

“I found this against the front of the pump. I’m surprised you didn’t see it when you were out there.”

“What is it and what are you going to do with it?”

“Well it’s a coat, George.” Carol said it with disbelief in her voice. She’d always suspected she’d married a simpleton. She reached back and laid it over the back seat in the hopes it would dry. Water dripped onto George’s paper and he scoffed, sipped his lukewarm coffee.

“I was going to give it to Jim when it dried.”

“Oh, that’s a great gift for him. Why, with a mother as generous as you…” George trailed off as he put the van in gear.

“Is this going to be a long weekend, George?” Carol glared at him over the rim of her cup.

“For me it is,” he muttered and turned on the radio.

****

Netti stirred her ice water with a straw, put her thumb over the exposed end, retracted and released it. The water sloshed from the end of the straw back into the glass, right over that lemon she’d asked them not to put in there.

She’d done a tour of duty at McDonald’s as an aimless early twenty-something and knew from experience that the lemon wedges were the filthiest things on the menu.

Jim’s chair thudded and scraped against the floor, one of the legs was uneven. To make matters worse, the table and chairs were designed for someone not much bigger than a child. It was the perfect size for Netti, but Jim was tall, and looked uncomfortable, hunched over in his midget-sized and uneven chair.

“Are you ready” he asked and reached for his coat.

“Yes.” He was halfway across the lobby before she’d even stood. She took giant steps to keep up with him, fastening her coat as she walked. She caught up with him in the vestibule — at least he held the door for her as they stepped into the night. Jim fiddled with the front of his coat as they crossed the street to the parking lot.

“I hate this coat. The zipper doesn’t work so I have to button it.”

“Where did you get it?” Netti asked.

“My parents found it by the side of the road.”

“By the side of the road? You mean, they just picked up some random coat that they found on the side of the road and gave it to you?”

“Yep. That’s right,” he said, and snapped the button nearest his chin.

“It’s probably some dead man’s coat,” Netti laughed, the sound pierced the quiet night and tears formed in the creases of her eyes when they reached the truck. Jim looked down at the coat. He was disturbed. His girlfriend, with her gallows humor, often had that effect on him. He wasn’t sure what he was doing with someone so odd. Tits. That’s right, she had a nice set of tits. He opened his door and turned on the engine.